The Basics – Critical Thinking

A lot of blogs have a category in which they describe basic concepts pertinent to the subject matter.  I think this is a wonderful idea, and will sporadically indulge myself.  Here is the first of my basic concepts: critical thinking.

Critical thinking is once again entering the lexicon of the culture wars.  It is considered the gold standard of teaching, so it is understandable that various ideologies would like to wrap themselves in its mantle.  However, what these ideologists call critical thinking is but a pale ghost of what critical thinking really is.

Back in high school, one of my classmates complained to me that he couldn’t figure out how to solve the homework problems.  So I sat down and asked him to show me what he was doing so I could help him.  When I saw what he was doing, I was speechless.  Instead of solving the problem the way we were taught, he was trying to use the method we were taught to use to check our work.  You need to have an answer before you can check your work.  When I pointed out to him what he wa doing, we looked at me like I had grown two heads.  Why would we solve a problem we already solved?

The answer, of course, is to make sure we solved it correctly.  Checking your work is the least important part of finding a solution, but its vital to making sure that your solution is correct, that you understand how to solve the problem.

Creationists -including people who endorse intelligent design- and other conservative ideologists have made a major push to get “critical thinking” initiatives added to a number of science standards in the United States.  But like my classmate, their concept of critical thinking is limited to the solution check.  They believe (or possibly pretend) that critical thinking means “questioning what you have been taught or have concluded.”  But that is merely the solution check.  Its important to making sure that your answer is correct, but is useless in deriving your answer.

So what is critical thinking?  It is a multi-step, iterative process.  First you identify a problem, trying to discern the relevant questions and known and unkown data.  Then you take the knowledge that you have gained and apply it to the problem, looking to see if there are multiple approaches to take.  You then evaluate what you have done, trying to determine which approach is the most likely to produce a good answer.  You may need to try several approaches.  You then look at your answers to see if they make sense, and whether they suggest other questions to be asked.  Then and only then, do you sit down and ask if the knowledge you were applying can give the answer to the problem.

Ideologists want to skip to the last step.  They want people to conclude that the concept they despise doesn’t give a good answer, without actually going through the beginning steps.  And they want their ideology to get a free pass, for people to conclude that they have the better answer without any of the steps of critical thinking being applied.  In other words, they want rote memorization.

Obviously, in order to teach critical thinking, you have to have a knowledge base.  But how do we select that base?  In the tradition of critical thinking, you let a bunch of people loose on the problems and see if they can reach a general consensus on the solutions by applying critical thinking.  This consensus does not require unanimity.  Those solutions that achieve a general consensus become part of the knowledge base.  You then teach that knowledge base, and show the students how to properly apply all the steps of critical thinking.  Only after they have mastered the art of critical thinking do you start to introduce them to solutions not in the general consensus or that have not been subjected to or have failed rigorous critical thinking.  This level of mastery is not normally reached until college. 

To make it short and to the point, the question we need to be teaching them to answer is not “How does x explain y?” or “How could x possibly explain y?”

The question they should be learning to answer is “How would x explain y?”


2nd Summary Judgment – Followup

This is a brief followup to my previous post.  In addition to the numerical error, there was some confusion from my readers about the use of the original expert witness reports.  The original expert witness reports, which were timely, covered the seven courses named in the complaint.  However, they did not address the as-applied challenges to the individual course rejections, only the facial challenges to the policies.  When the plaintiffs finally identified the 41 course rejections they were challenging, they dropped two of the original seven from the list, and then three more after UC objected.  This left 33 new courses (not offered by Calvary Chapel), four original courses offered by Calvary Chapel, and one original course not offered by Calvary Chapel.  ACSI submitted supplemental reports/affadavits (they submitted them as both types of documents just in case one type was precluded) for all 38 of the courses, this time arguing specifically for the as-applied challenge (and specifically for unreasonableness).  The judge rejected the supplemental reports, leaving only the original reports for the 5 remaining courses named in the Complaint.

As I noted, these original reports only addressed the facial policies.  The evidence offered in a facial challenge can be used to demonstrate that the policy, on its face, is unreasonable.  But once that policy is determined to be reasonable (as was determined in the first partial summary judgment), the evidence offered must demonstrate that the course would not have been rejected by a reasonable person working under the guidelines of the policy.  In other words, did the course meet the requirements listed by the policy?  That is an entirely different kettle of fish.

So the plaintiffs tried to shoehorn their old evidence into the new standard of review.  The problem was, for each course, the evidence they provided failed to demonstrate that they had met the listed requirements for that type of course.  For example, one of the requirements for a literature course is that whole works be used as the primary text, not anthologies or short stories.  Rather than argue that they met the “whole works” req, ACSI argued that the other courses approved by UC had used texts by the same authors in the anthology ACSI used.  This analysis also failed to address whether the works of those authors in the approved courses were whole works or part of anthologies.

Of particular interest to many of my readers is the biology course.  Although UC challenged this course based on standing*, the judge declined to address the standing issue for this course (and since it was based on prudential standing, not constitutional standing, the judge could use his discretion on the issue).  Dr. Behe, a familiar face to those following creationism, provided the expert report. The portion of his report that ACSI offered up tried to demonstrate that the Christian textbooks met the state BOE standards as well as certain secular textbooks.  He did this by analyizing whether a topic was mentioned in the books (even going so far as to include misreperesenting a scientific claim as mentioning a topic, because a teacher could use that as a launching point for further discussion! – though he didn’t quite word it that way, of course).  His criteria was merely a mention of the concept, openly admitting “I did not consider how much detail or depth a text went into on a given standard.”  See pages 2-3.  The problem, aside from using a standard that UC is not obligated to accept, is that doesn’t meet the requirement for content – and Behe acknowledged what that requirement was.  Behe cites the requirements on page 17-18:

Certification Categories.  Generally, courses that are suitable for satisfying the minimum requirement will fall into one of three categories: 

  1. College preparatory courses in biology, chemistry, or physics.
  2. College preparatory courses which may incorporate applications in some other scientific or career-technical subject area, but which nonetheless cover the core concepts that would be expected in one of the three foundational subjects.  A few examples could include some courses in marine biology or agricultural biology, which may qualify as providing appropriate content in basic biology; and some advanced courses in earth and space sciences, which may provide suitable coverage of chemistry or physics.  These are only examples; other possibilities exist.  Hoever, it is emphasized that courses in this second category must cover, with sufficient depth and rigor, the essential material in one of the foundational subjects in order to qualify for “d” certification.

Behe then follows with the following observation: “It seems clear from this description that the university’s prime concern is that the “essential material in one of the foundational subjects” must be covered…”  Correct, but Behe neglected to mention the part about “with sufficient depth and rigor” – which he previously admitting not having evaluated.  Behe failed to produce evidence that the rejection was unreasonable because he abdicated the discussion of whether the course met the stated requirements.

In a similar vein, ACSI had no evidence for the unreasonableness of other course rejections.  The evidence ACSI produced was merely “a thin veneer” quickly destroyed by the judge.


*Allowing myself to get distracted tracking down whether UC objected to the course is the root cause of why I made the numerical error in the previous post.

-Edited for wordpress display issues (stupid indents not working with numbered lists)

2nd Summary Judgment In ACSI v. Stearns

On Friday, August 8, 2008, Judge Otero entered summary judgment against plaintiff ACSI in the Christian course evaluation case.  This resolved the remaining claims made by ACSI; the judge had entered partial summary judgment back in late March.  In a subsequent posting, I will analyze the earlier summary judgment.  This post is for last Friday’s ruling.

I have uploaded the ruling from the PACER online casefile (the only change being to rename the computer file) for the reader’s convenience.


Read the rest of this entry »

Time Warp

Unfortunately, shortly after my last contribution, my job and my personal life interfered with maintaining the blog.  Little did I know my disappearance was going to last half a year!  But that which was taking up all my free time is done, or nearly so.  In fact, in a future posting I’ll show you what it was that I was doing.

But for now, know that I am back, recharged, and hopefully better prepared to entertain and inform any readers who actually stumble upon this tiny speck in the vastness of the internet.  First up: breaking news on a court case I’ve been following for several years.